Team Building and Development in a Matrix Environment


What is a team?

There are many kinds of teams. A functional team is a permanent team established to conduct operational activities for a particular part of the organization, such as finance, sales, marketing, etc. There is no specified time limit on functional teams as they are needed to keep the business running. A project team is brought together for a discrete period of time to achieve a defined goal. At the end of the project the team is disbanded. Project teams are often matrix in nature, staffed by members taken from diverse functional teams in order to achieve the project goal. When the Project Manager has a high degree of authority this is known as a strong matrix; when Functional Managers have stronger authority this is known as a weak matrix.

In all organizational structures, there are many ‘teams within teams’. For example, if I am the Manager, I might have several teams within my overall team:

  • Me and the whole team
  • Me and each individual in my management team
  • Me and all of my management team
  • Me and my peers in other departments
  • Each management team individual and their direct reports

This is complicated enough if the structure is a well-defined functional hierarchy. However, a matrix environment for completing projects adds in another layer of complexity. The functional ‘teams within teams’ still exist and each person has a functional ‘home’ team, but now they also belong to a ‘project’ team which has a finite life span.

All of these teams need nurturing if a project is to be successful. In a matrix environment, allegiance to the project is not created by the structure itself, Team building but rather as a result of the relationships that are developed within the project team. Relationships in all teams are important for success, but on matrix teams, particularly weak matrix teams, where the project manager may have little authority, they are especially important. On such teams, relationships are more difficult to establish, are more fragile, and can be more easily destroyed. Keeping a diverse group of people together in a matrix team depends on building loyalty and trust.

Phases of Team Development

In 1965 Bruce Tuckman developed the theory that a team went through certain phases of group development: forming, storming, norming and performing. The phases can be summarized as follows:

  • Forming – the team comes together, starts to understand the goals and boundaries, initiates the tasks, but each individual is still working somewhat independently. Managers need to be directive at this stage in order to steer the team toward the goal.
  • Storming – ideas and approaches start to be exchanged about how the work can be accomplished, and this can result in conflict. This phase is critical for the growth of the team, and results in individuals learning ways to work together. Managers still need to be directive at this stage, and also accessible to ensure that conflict is resolved and the team is starting to move forward toward the goal.
  • Norming – the team starts to feel a sense of achievement, rules of operation (either formal or informal) are working, and trust begins to form. Managers start to be participative, and need to be available to provide guidance as the team continues to grow together.
  • Performing – the team is now maturing and often high performing. Work is accomplished, team members know how to work together, and even though conflict takes place it is managed and navigated with skill and can enhance productivity. The team requires very little supervision at this point and can largely make its own decisions.

Tuckman later added a final phase ‘adjourning’ to acknowledge that teams, in particular project teams, typically break up after the objectives of the project are complete.

Team Building Techniques

Team building activities are conducted in order to develop loyalty and trust which are a critical foundation for getting the most effective results from a matrix project team. Team building is not just about creating ‘fun’ events, although that is part of it. It is also not just about understanding team members through personality assessments, although again, that is part of it. The most effective team building involves combining a variety of tools and techniques.

  • Kick off meetings – a new project should be initiated with a kick off meeting so that the purpose of the project, roles and responsibilities and how the project fits into the organization’s overall goals can be understood. This technique can be used in all types of teams, but in a matrix project team that has come together with staff from multiple different sources it is especially important as the team has no established context for the project.
  • Team agreements – Teams that know how to work together are more likely to be effective and efficient. Establishing agreements can assist in this process. Collaboratively establishing ground rules for how a team will operate will provide the team with clarity and will ease communication over issues such as boundaries, responsibilities, and team member behavior. Functional teams already have this established through the use of departmental policies and procedures. However for newly formed matrix project teams that do not have rules of operation established as part of their formal organization structure, team agreements is a necessary aspect of building an effective team.
  • Delivery process definition – Understanding how the work is to be accomplished makes it easier for a team to work together. Functional teams typically have the process for delivering the work established as part of the departmental rules. Given that the nature of each project may be different, matrix project teams typically do not have initial stated rules for delivering the work. For example, if a software development team is unsure which development lifecycle (waterfall, agile, etc) is being followed to achieve the project goal, confusion and a lack of productivity by the team may result. Clearly defining and establishing a process that is understood by all the players in the newly formed matrix team is critical for the success of the project.


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